Book Review: On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder

 “It is thus a primary American tradition to consider history when our political order seems imperiled. If we worry today that the American experiment is threatened by tyranny, we can follow the example of the Founding Fathers and contemplate the history of other democracies and republics. The good news is that we can draw upon more recent and relevant examples than ancient Greece and Rome. The bad news is that the history of modern democracy is also one of decline and fall.”

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth CenturyOn Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Among the opening passages in Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century is “History does not repeat, but it does instruct.” This book does just that, it instructs us on how to evaluate and navigate the political currents that we face in the United States today. Dr. Snyder, a professor of European and Political History, shows how the rise of Candidate and President Trump has similarities with the rise of modern tyrannical leaders. He takes the History of political movements and the falls of democratic governments in the periods after World War I and before World War II, after World War II, and after the end of the Cold War and uses them to show us how to identify and resist the rise of tyranny here at home. Written because of what the author observed happening around him, On Tyranny reminds me of the political pamphlets and treatises written around the American Revolution. Just as those writings were important in bringing the United States its freedom, this book can be important in keeping our freedom. On Tyranny, though short, is engaging and thought-provoking. Whether you believe that the United States could be slipping toward tyranny or not, it would be in your best interest to read it with an open mind, be vigilant of what it warns of, and heed the lessons it presents.

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I would also recommend Dan Snow’s History Hit Podcast episode about On Tyranny with Dr. Snyder, in which he and host Dan Snow discuss the book and current events. An important takeaway is Dr. Snyder’s advice not to panic.

Dissent vs Treason – We Must Not Confuse Dissent With Disloyalty

With these words in his speech in Ohio on Monday, President Trump equated dissent with treason by saying that politicians who didn’t applaud him during his State of the Union Address were un-American and treasonous:

 

“You’re up there. You got half the room going totally crazy, wild, loved everything. They want to do something great for our country, and you have the other side, even on positive news — really positive news — like that, they were like death, un-American. Somebody said treasonous. Yeah, I guess, why not? Can we call that treason? Why not? I mean they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.”

 

President Trump’s statement couldn’t be farther from true. You might be able to argue that the Democrats were impolite and you may disagree with their position, but their actions are not un-American and they are not treasonous. In fact, their actions are protected by the Constitution – they have freedom of expression. Trump’s words are not the words of a President of the United States, they are the words of a despot or a tyrant. Press Secretary Sanders said that his words were said in jest. You don’t joke by calling someone un-American and accusing them of treason. No, those words were designed to inflame, to damage the Democrats. I never dreamed that I would hear a President of the United States say something like that.

I felt moved to write to my Representative, Buddy Carter and my Senators Johnny Isaakson and David Perdue. I disagree with all three on many issues, but it would never occur to me call them un-American and treasonous. I’ve never heard a report of any of them calling those they disagree with the same. Here is what I wrote to them:

 

In his speech in Ohio yesterday, President Trump suggested – all but said – that members of Congress who disagreed with him and didn’t applaud him during his State of the Union Address were un-American and treasonous. I never dreamed that I would hear a President of the United States call dissenting politicians treasonous. You and I disagree on many things, but it has never crossed my mind to call you un-American or treasonous because of those differences. To do so would be contrary to our bedrock freedoms. I urge you, a Trump supporter, to impress upon President Trump how very wrong his statement was and how contrary to our core freedoms it was to call dissent and freedom of expression treason. In closing, I’ll leave you with these words from Edward R. Murrow:

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty.” – 9 March 1954, See it Now

 

After I emailed that note that closed with Murrow’s quotation, I felt the need to rewatch “Good Night and Good Luck,” the movie about Murrow taking on Joseph McCarthy. The closing of the See It Now episode which that quotation comes from never fails to cause a tear to come to my eye and even though we may not be facing McCarthyism today, we do face a toxic environment in which a President confuses dissent with disloyalty. I think that Murrow’s words of March 1954 mean just as much today as they did then:

 

No one familiar with the history of this country can deny that congressional committees are useful. It is necessary to investigate before legislating, but the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one and the junior Senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly. His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind, as between the internal and the external threats of Communism. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.

This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.

The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

 

The President and a Funeral – A Lost Opportunity

I rarely write about politics but I feel strongly about this, so I hope my readers will pardon this morning’s post.

Our country is ideologically divided to an extent that it probably hasn’t been since the late 60’s/early 70’s and it is only magnified by the election year posturing of both the Democrat and Republican presidential candidates. Very few politicians from either the left or right are interested in reaching a hand “across the aisle;” instead we’re left with zero-sum, scorched earth politics that are doing no one any good. Today offers the President of the United States an opportunity to lead by example and make a gesture of unity by attending the funeral of a Supreme Court Justice whose ideology he disagreed with. Instead, he has decided to send the Vice President, an act that will do nothing but fan the flames of discontent. Besides the fact that it would be a gesture of unity, it quite simply is the right thing to do. In not going, the President has forfeited any legitimate complaints he has against the right in regards to any partisan actions the right takes against his Supreme Court nominee. The petty behavior we’re about to see take place is more fitting of kindergartners than it is of adult elected officials, but we not only tolerate it, we encourage it. And for that, we deserve what we’re going to get.

Review: Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica, Europe’s Worst Massacre Since World War II

Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica, Europe's Worst Massacre Since World War II
Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica, Europe’s Worst Massacre Since World War II by David Rohde
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Easily the most difficult book I’ve read in a long time, not because it is poorly written but because of the subject matter.”

Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica, Europe’s Worst Massacre Since World War II by David Rohde is about the fall of Srebrenica during the Bosnian wars of the mid 1990s and the genocide of Muslims that followed. I’ve only read two books that have disturbed me so much that I had to stop reading them and come back to them later. This was one of those books. Around half way through, I was so angry that I had put aside for awhile because what I read and what I thought about what I read would ruin the rest of my day.It wasn’t that the book was poorly written; it is well written, the problem is the subject matter. The subject matter is the death of thousands because of ineptitude and negligence.

Author David Rohde makes no attempt to sugarcoat what occurred in and around Srebrenica. He doesn’t just tell the reader what happened, he also explores how it happened and why it happened. It’s isn’t a simple narrative either; Rhode puts you behind the eyes of Muslims, Serbs, and Peacekeepers, telling the story from their perspective. You feel the fear and see the horror the Muslims experience. You get an idea of what made the Serbs tick and why they participated in atrocities. You feel the frustration of the Dutch peacekeepers as they try to do their job while outnumbered, outgunned, and at upper levels poorly led. This book is objective. Rhode doesn’t paint the Muslims as completely innocent or the Serbs completely evil. He points out violations of agreements and corruption on the part of the Muslims. He explores the decision making of the peacekeepers and the UN and western leadership, pointing out mistakes and negligence while also defending when it is called for.

To be honest, I don’t know how my words can do this book justice, so I’ll just describe how it left me when I was finished. It describes an episode in history in which there were no winners, only losers in painful, objective detail. It didn’t take me long to realize that the “good guys” were impotent and that there would be no happy ending to the story. It made me rage, it made me cry tears of sorrow, and it made me ashamed of my country’s part in the tragedy. After reading how it made me feel, you probably won’t want to read this book, but I urge you to do it. It’s something that many in this country don’t know about and probably don’t want to know about, but the lack of understanding and knowledge about what happened in the former Yugoslavia has a lot to do with where we find ourselves at now.

If you’re not familiar with what happened in the former Yugoslavia in the mid 1990s, I urge you to buy this book and learn how the United Nations and the West, including the United States failed the Bosnian Muslims. Despite how difficult it was read, it was at the same time hard to put down. This is one of the easiest five star ratings I’ve ever made.

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Thoughts About the Supreme Court’s Decision on Same Sex Marriage

Please bear with me while I share another religious/political post. These are few and far between for me, usually made when I have to get something off of my chest.

For the past few days I’ve been thinking about the Supreme Court’s decision on same sex marriage and what it means for the country. While it is the right decision, It is definitely one that is going to be divisive. The court has done the right thing in extending the right to marry to the LGBT community but it is going to create a large amount of discontent within parts of the religious right. It shouldn’t, but it will. I’m afraid it will also create discontent within parts of the LGBT community and its supporters.

The Supreme Court was right to strike down state laws prohibiting same sex marriages. I see it no differently than the civil rights struggles in the 1960s. The Supreme Court simply extended a basic right to same sex couples that normal couples have had for ages. There is nothing in this decision that changes anything for churches. The court has not said that clergy will have to perform same sex marriages, there is nothing that says same sex marriages will have to be performed within churches. This decision provides for civil marriages. Clergy and churches will be able to make the decision whether or not they should marry same sex couples, which is how it should be.

Unfortunately, this decision has the potential to create an extraordinary amount of discontent on both sides of the issue. This is a Sunday that finds me relieved that I’m no longer a Southern Baptist (or a member of other similar churches); I just know that there are preachers who have spent the last couple of days writing new sermons to pillory the Supreme Court. Likewise, there will be those within the LGBT community who are going to get upset when clergy and churches refuse to marry them and they will be equally as vocal with their discontent. In my opinion, both sides will be wrong.

As Christians, I believe it will be our duty to treat each other with respect, civility, and dignity in the example of Christ. I think one of the best responses I’ve seen is the response from Bishop Hartmayer of the Catholic Diocese of Savannah. There will be those who dislike the first part of his response in which he says the Catholic Church will not change it’s mind on same sex marriage, but all should agree on the second part of his response:

“However, this judgment does not dispense either those who may approve or disapprove of this decision from the obligations of civility toward one another. Nor is it a license for more venomous language or vile behavior against those whose opinions differ from our own.

This Court action is a decision that confers a civil entitlement to some people who could not claim it before. It does not resolve the moral debate that preceded it and will most certainly continue in its wake.

The moral debate however must also include the way that we treat one another – especially those with whom we may disagree. We are all God’s children and are commanded to love one another. In many respects that moral question is at least as consequential and weighty as is the granting of this civil entitlement.”